It's Alex and Ani's state...

By PHILIP EIL  |  September 18, 2013

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BANGLES AND CHARMS Shoppers at an Alex and Ani boutique. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

The answers offered by Alex and Ani executives leave plenty to the imagination.

“We believe in ourselves; we know we could do it,” Feroce said, when we asked him to explain the company’s success. Early on in his partnership with Rafaelian, he says, he asked her, “What size company do you want?” Her answer at the time was in the range of “several hundreds of millions of dollars,” he says. Since then, he says “we’ve adjusted it to billions.”

“It’s like anything else. . . effort equals results,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Rafaelian has described the company’s products as a situation “where Mother Nature and science kinda co-exist with each other.”

“It’s almost like a little magical spell of love and I put it in every single thing that I do,” she told the Women’s Jewelry Association’s “In the Know” Conference in New York City in 2012.” “And guess what? That little magical spell is multiplying.”

But regardless of any mystery that floats around the company’s astonishing growth, and regardless of the seeming randomness of their coffee shop-bangles-wine-media-music strategy — “Do you want to dwell on things that don’t work? Or do you want to be supportive of things that actually do work, regardless of how they’re working or why they’re working? God bless it! Period. The end,” Rafaelian tells us — the company has no shortage of prominent local fans.

“I was impressed with the upbeat atmosphere in the factory as well as the pride of the workers in their products and in their role in rejuvenating the jewelry industry in RI,” Rhode Island College President Nancy Carriuolo tells us via email. She describes a memorable conversation she had with a vendor who was unloading newly-plated bangles who told her that he was nearly out of business until Alex and Ani started sending him orders for metal plating. “Then he could barely train new employees fast enough to keep up with the demand.

“The fact that they give back to RI non-profits so generously means that they have a positive effect across our state,” she adds. (She’s referring to the company’s multi-million-dollar-giving Charity by Design division, through which various non-profits receive a percentage of sales from certain bangles. Twenty percent of “HERO” bangle sales, for example, go to Hasbro Children’s Hospital, the company’s website says.)

“I think when you talk to small businesses . . . one that might have three of four people, or a restaurant with 10 people, those people are always looking for a glimmer of hope,” says John Hazen White Jr., longtime CEO of the Rhode Island HVAC company TACO. For a state that few companies list high on their locations for possible expansion, Alex and Ani has been a beacon amidst the gloom, White says. Their story offers the message “that you can actually create and prosper here,” he says.

 

All ‘on-board’?

“From the outside you look at it and it looks like a retail play with kinda faddy jewelry, right? And you wonder whether that’s sustainable.”

Saul Kaplan, former executive director of the RI Economic Development Corporation and founder of the RI-based Business Innovation Factory, is addressing the questions that, after “Who is Alex and Ani?” and “What do they make?” seems to pop into many Rhode Islanders’ minds: can the company’s wild success be sustained? What if bangles are just a fad?

Kaplan, for one, is convinced of the company is the real thing.

“When you visit there and walk around the facility that they’re building you can’t help but be impressed,” he says of a recent trip to the Cranston headquarters. “You can’t help but look around and say, ‘This is exactly what you want.’ ” Citing companies like the online-order shoe empire, Zappos, based in Las Vegas, he says “I think the most interesting growth companies are not companies, they’re movements.” He places Alex and Ani in that same category.

(The inner mechanics of the Alex and Ani “movement,” are perhaps the subject for another article. The Phoenix was given a copy of one of the packets new Alex and Ani employees receive when they “onboard,” the term the company uses for being hired. The packet includes a number of short essay questions like “Now that you have considered how your essence and free will can create a positive (+) life worth living at work, what do you consider might be your biggest realizations that will help guide you to becoming a successful contributor at Alex and Ani?” “ What key personal insights did you experience as we were reviewing the Path of Life™ material?” and “When you consider the gift of ‘you’ and the gift of this place we call ‘Alex and Ani,’ how do you think your talents seen in current and future practices (especially future) will contribute to the organization’s overall mission?”)

When you ask Alex and Ani execs whether this meteoric rise can and will continue, they offer a couple answers. The bangles, Rafaelian says, are insured against being a fad by their concept and design; their meaning to customers makes them non-disposable.

“If your best friend bought you a ‘Best Friend’ bangle, you’re going to think it’s trendy and you’re going to get rid of it after a while?” she says. “I mean, come on. Or are you going to remember your best friend for the rest of your life?”

The bangles are beside the point, Feroce says. “We sell the symbolism, we sell the story,” he says. And this wildly popular symbolism and story, he says, will be affixed to a number of new products in the coming months and years, from candles to handbags to apparel and other stops along what he calls it a “product roadmap.”

“We definitely look at the 24-to-36-month window as when we would significantly look different than we do today,” he says.

But where does that leave the rest of us? For Rhode Islanders who haven’t “onboarded” and who have no plans to buy bangles or belts whatever else the company rolls out, how might the complexion and culture of our state change? After all, if we’ve been this prominently branded, billboarded, and bombarded by Alex and Ani when they’re only “just starting,” what might Rhode Island look like in one, two, five, or 10 years?

A visit to the Cranston Teas and Javas on a recent afternoon perhaps provided a preview of what a local reporter recently referred to on Twitter as “Rhode Island + Alex + Ani Plantations.”

Piping from unseen speakers in the coffee shop was a song by Colour of London, followed shortly by an advertisement in which the company’s name “Alex and Ani. . . Alex and Ani. . .” was repeatedly spoken. Wafting through the air was the sweet, earthy aroma of Alex and Ani’s Scent 7 Room Spritz (“created with the four elemental energies of earth, air, fire, and water”), which the company unveiled earlier this year.

On one side of the café was a double door flung open to invite visitors into the Alex and Ani boutique next door, where they could peruse endless varieties of bangles or pay $24 for a copy of Path of Life: Why I Wear My Alex and Ani, the book co-written by Giovanni Feroce and Alex and Ani “Corporate Historian” Cyd McKenna, released earlier this year.

(The 112-page book includes a 22-page “Charm Library” detailing the various charms that customers can purchase, from symbols for aunts and grandmothers to mini metal conch shells to icons for the Kentucky Derby. During an interview with The Huffington Post about the book, McKenna said “our bangles had real healing properties” for one customer and her son who was receiving treatments at New England Children’s Hospital.)

At the coffee shop’s sugar and creamer station was something rarely, if ever, seen in other coffee shops: a plastic-encased sheet of paper attached to a metal stand that read “Smile — you may be on camera! Teas and Javas is capturing moments within this space.”

Below, under the heading “Filming & Photo Consent” was lettered list printed in much smaller type.

“By entering the premises here at 2000 Chapel View Blvd. Suite 245 in Cranston, RI, you hereby agree to the following and give your consent to TEAS AND JAVAS, LLC,” it said:

“a. to record my likeness and voice on a video, audio, photographic, digital, electronic or any other medium and to use my name in connection with these recordings. . . .”

The document continued in a similar vein to the bottom the of the page, which read: “e. I give TEAS AND JAVAS, LLC. The unlimited right to use my name, the name of the company with which I am affiliated and all or part of the recordings in the making of this production.”

When the Phoenix inquired, Marc Lewinstein, director of analytics of Alex and Ani, told us such documents, called “crowd releases,” are “commonly used when filming in public and semi-public places.”

At the bottom of the page, though, there was no place for anyone to sign.

Philip Eil can be reached at peil@phx.com. Follow him on Twitter @phileil.

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